Geospatial acts: the special place of participatory mapping within cities

A Geospatial Act – “Map” by Aram Bartholl / Amber Case on Flickr. See also here for the full photographic project. 

This blog post is a reflection on the complex relationships between the material and the virtual, public participation and exclusion, space and place, tools and users, hardware and interface, and most importantly, between data and imagination – and how these both influence and are shaped by the daily lives of urban dwellers.

Much is being written currently about the opportunities and challenges facing participatory mapping as a relatively innovative mode of participation in urban affairs. Beyond existing guidance and sharing of former experience, there are no standard solutions to follow to design successful, inclusive mapping processes: only new pathways to be tested and deployed according to local context and need. The power of maps more than ever lies in our ability to (re)present the world to ourselves and others in more engaging, satisfactory ways. To map consciously, with full awareness, is already to act and steer our future. How maps become part of the life and blood of cities and enable us to live on happily, however, largely remains up to us as social individuals, citizens, communities, and societies.

Where do we want to go?

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. Albert Einstein

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News broadcasts have one great quality, even if tragic or unsettling at times: they always remind us that we live in uncertain times, and that life should not be taken for granted. The complex interplay between reason and emotions, intention and outcome, logic and dream, make us who we are as humans – fallible, contradictory, and hopelessly stubborn. We often excel at creating suffering for ourselves and others when what we really want is usually for everyone to live happy lives, regardless of how one may define happiness. No wonder that, after millennia of socio-technical experimentation, humanity is still crippled with blatant inequalities and now facing precarious living circumstances under the bane of climate change. Visualising the distribution of happiness and misery across the world would be a messy mapping exercise, where it would not be possible to claim that only the poor suffer. Contentment and happiness cannot be subsumed to wealth indexes, although basic standards of living are of course a fundamental requirement for a happy life.

Our future as individuals and societies therefore remains uncertain. So, then, where do we really want to head to, so that all may have thrive and prosper happily? And how do we get there? These questions are absolutely fundamental, but they may be easily forgotten in day-to-day life. It is only by stepping back that we can make better sense of where we are truly heading for, individually and collectively.  The path to resilience has to be made afresh. Guided by a clear, mindful intention, mapping out our journey is an excellent place to start and will greatly help get to where we really want to go.

Getting there

It is not good enough for things to be planned – they still have to be done; for the intention to become a reality, energy has to be launched into operation. Walt Kelly

Read more at: – where are we heading to?

Maps have always been instruments of power and conquest. The work of Stephen Graham, Pickles and many others traces the age-old history of cartography to military and land management purposes. Maps as tools have supported the creation and management of large empires and small kingdoms alike. In recent times, GIS, Google Earth, and the GPS technology were all first and foremost associated with modern warfare and very serious geopolitical gaming strategies. All the modern technologies enabling the production of geospatial data and visualisation products (say, for instance, the airplane, satellite, or even drones) have been associated with one or another with war and defence and their attending industries. Much like aluminium foil is now used in kitchens the world over, the digital map has now entered countless people’s daily lives, whether they know it (e.g. Google maps) or not (e.g. surveillance, or the tracking of all traded goods).

In the process, mapping technologies have been appropriated by the masses in multiple ways. For example, Open Street Maps can be said to be a form of ‘neogeography’ – a dynamic, social mapping process where all those with basic mapping and digital skills can contribute to enrich maps of daily value to thousands if not millions of users. A relative democratisation in cartography has been taking place in map making, although still limited to a special class of active contributors. Many scholars provide valuable accounts of this shift from expert, government-led map production processes to one of voluntary geographic information (VGI) and other more participatory forms of mapping.

Participation in daily mapping technologies is a geospatial act, whatever the level of expertise. On the basic end of the expertise spectrum, one may easily look up an address on Bing Maps, read a review of a restaurant on FourSquare, on check bus itineraries to go visit our relatives. On the higher end of the same spectrum, tech-savvy architecture students and computer scientists may compete to produce the most exquisite utopian (or dystopian) future digital urban environments to admire for their own sake or play with. Hackathons, mapathons, urban design competitions, urban labs, fab labs, maker fairs and place maker fairs are all modern participatory design get-togethers that are powered by the dissemination of geospatial technology and data of all sorts – from open government spatial and statistic data to big data issued by billions of social media users. In a world where everything seems increasingly interconnected, relational, virtualised, ephemeral, and at times even surreal, location has never mattered so much. Place matters as much as now as it ever was, even though our tweets and Facebook likes may provide us with the illusion of evading the physical places we live in – the same places we may find dull and characterless precisely because we often lack the courage, imagination or opportunity to interact fully with them.

There is definitely a lot that goes unseen behind a finalised digital map or 3D virtual environment. The geospatial industry is a complex assemblage of data collection technologies (planes, drones, satellites, laser scans, photographs etc), visualisation opportunities and devices (laptops, tablets, smart phones, hand-held GIS, visualisation labs, head-mounted gears), and people. There is a lot of money and investment in the geospatial industry as well – maps are part of the backbone of modern society and economy, and support all realms of activity, from real estate to mass consumption and politics. Everyone needs maps, in every possible shape, medium and form (aside: Could cartographers ever run out of jobs?). And although ownership and privacy rights are still very much an issue in terms of software license and access to data, much of the digital map-making process is increasingly open, with big players like Google making services freely available to anyone who can use them.

Yet even hackathons, mapathons and other participatory mapping events also require physical fuel (even if only pizzas, coke and crisps). Satellites need to be renewed, planes need fuel, the resources for iPhone and laptop components need to be extracted from the ground and disposed of with high social and environmental costs. As digital worlds continue to refashion material cities in their own image on a now mundane, day-to-day basis, the material pre-conditions and consequences of digital mapping processes remain of critical importance. To use and interact with digital maps is a geospatial act in the same way as using Facebook is a “digital act” – it actively (re)defines our identities as citizens and (re)shapes the ways in which we choose to engage in civic society, whether knowingly or not. For a further discussion of what it really means to be digital citizens in today’s world, do see the work of Isin and Rupert (2016). The way we engage with the digital world is anything but trivial.

Now that we know that we should be mindful of all of what the geospatial industry entail and enables us to do, how can we appropriate and engage with virtual maps and virtual worlds meaningfully? As the means are increasingly accessible and affordable to many, it is increasingly easy for individuals and communities to tell their stories and to map their future, as they want it, but also to help those who do not have access to the same means to do the same.


Here are just some examples of geospatial digital acts that can help us get to where we want to go.

Drones can be used affordably by communities to map their areas of residence, in order to support more sustainable housing construction and land-use planning, for example in areas such as part of Lima where the use of drones is (still) unregulated.

Applications like Map-me allows you to spray areas and places as fuzzy rather than fixed or determinate. For example, users can designate general areas that are perceived as safe or unsafe, allowing for fuzzy overlaps between categories that are often otherwise displayed as discrete in most conventional GIS and PPGIS applications. Mapping fuzzy areas is worth further exploration, including to better display uncertainty or fluctuations, for example to represent movement or special land uses such as pastoralism/herding among indigenous communities, conflicts over natural resources, or even perceptions of the boundaries of neighbourhoods – see McCall (2003) for a discussion of participatory fuzzy mapping in development contexts, and Huck et al. (2014) in rural contexts in the UK and US.

Critical mapping experiments have enabled to map individual life stories or personal experiences in innovative ways using a mix of mapping methods, many often requiring to extend conventional mapping functionalities through new programme applications. A leader in this field is Mei Po Kwan, see for example, among many other innovative uses of GIS, her experiment in representing the experiences of a Muslim woman in Columbus, Ohio, in the post Sept-11 period. Because human experiences may not always be represented through points, lines and polygons (vectors), GIS may sometimes seem ill-suited to map such phenomena as emotions, making their spatial representation difficult. This difficult also applies to spatiotemporal experiences such as mobility, and experiences of health, segregation and accessibility of places. “Authored maps” can be used to map the personal experiences and life stories of people who do not have access to mapping technology as a means of communicating their concerns to local authorities – for example, the case of simultaneously mapping the life trajectory and daily precarious experiences of street vendors in the city of Ho Chi Minh City where planners want to get rid of street vending because of a perceived image that it is not good tourism (while in fact it is).

A whole array of mapping exercises can be used for visioning desirable futures, for example to perform backcasting exercises – exploring desirable futures and working backwards toward the present to establish an ambitious though realistic step-wise roadmap. Another way of describing backcasting would be: working incrementally toward identified sustainable targets and objectives, inspired by a sustainable vision, and backed by robust measurable indicators as well as more intangible qualitative criteria. For example, the book Images of the Future City by Höjer and colleagues, summarised in the following article, produces six innovative and engaging images of a future Stockholm region by means of six corresponding maps of spatial development and associated economic activity and social lifestyles.

Public Participation GIS, based on Google Map API or online mapper such as Mapbox, and virtual globes based on the Google Earth API, also enable to engage people extensively through mapping. Among current web-based 2D PPGIS tools that have been used in participatory spatial planning and/or community mapping, one can cite: Maptionnaire, Bästa Platsen, Emotional Maps, Social Pinpoint, Mapping for Change, CommonPlace, PlaceSpeak, coUrbanize, Geolive, Community21, Carticipe… Tools like Community21 and Mapping for Change have been especially used by communities to map areas of interest, for example to make spatial repositories of community resources. These tools allow people to comment places, give their views, suggest new ideas or land use alternatives, vote on public or community budgets, and assess development plans and proposals. Allowing diverse people to map can reveal difference in views as to how places should be used or planned, which also makes for interesting contributions to democratic deliberation.

Finally, hybrid portals for public engagement allow not only to map issues, but also discuss, view information and learn about planning processes and places, decide on how public money should be spent, and so on.

A never ending journey

In all, although geospatial technologies have origins and are the product of contentious socio-economic, even geopolitical processes (not least of use military uses), they can also be appropriated by people to re-design the real city and empower them to actively participate in local governance processes. They can be used to engage people in real planning processes or in various community projects. They can contribute to public dialogue and knowledge sharing among diverse stakeholder groups, and facilitate communication through highly visual, and sometimes even immersive virtual environments. Digital geospatial technologies can also be combined with more traditional participatory mapping and design techniques, such as design workshops and neighbourhood walks. Community projects and data collection can also include elements of citizen science, where people help the scientific community to monitor the state of the environment, which can serve as a basis for wider discussion about issues of concern within and between communities.

While life on earth cannot be perfect, it can be improved so as to make our stay as environmentally-friendly and respectful of others as possible. Multiple tools exist that can enable us to take care of others and ourselves as well as for the essential natural conditions that nurture all. The journey starts with a wish, and the tools are there to help us manifest that sincere wish in the world. It is a never-ending journey, where we might have to modify our wish to make it more inclusive or ambitious, or make it better fit the reality that we are all interconnected and interdependent. If we want to thrive or have a happy future for ourselves but also for others, then the journey itself should also reflect that aspiration.

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